After a short hiatus, strikes, protests and human chains are back on campus at Jawaharlal Nehru University, which had gone to the barricades in the recent past over one of the biggest political issues thrown up in the tenure of this government — the definition of nationalism, and anti-nationalism. Now, left, right and centre have found common cause and uncommon provocation in an order enforcing a 75 per cent attendance record. JNU was certainly not created to teach some of India’s finest minds to punch the clock in an orderly fashion. But at the same time, those agitated on this issue must ask themselves: Is this an issue worth agitating for? In a country where there is a growing lag between demand and supply, where there are too few opportunities and seats for a demanding young population, can there be a right not to attend class? For a campus that, for a while, became the epicentre of the debate on nationalism and competing ideas of India, is this going to be the petty, new fight?
In many ways, JNU’s students have helped reimagine and reinvigorate dissent at a time when the ruling dispensation seeks unquestioning uniformity, borrowing slogans and memes from all over and leveraging the mass media and social media far better than many political parties can. Other campuses in Hyderabad, Kolkata and elsewhere learned from the agitation in JNU, which helped when they came under pressure. The university campus is traditionally the safe haven of dissent, and JNU has contributed, in the face of massive intimidation, to keep it that way. The campus continues to play host to a vibrant culture of argument and dissent, and stratagems like the public inquiry initiated in October by the JNU Teachers’ Association against vice chancellor Jagadesh Kumar, which included important charges like the dilution of criteria for selecting faculty.
The attendance issue, which has now come up, could only risk undermining the students’ cause in the war of attrition with an unyielding administration. By all accounts, the entire student body, including postgraduates, is incensed about the imposition of attendance rules. Time spent in classrooms is not the best measure of higher education, where individuality and, indeed, idiosyncracies become engines of creativity. But there is a question of scale. Students and teachers who have served at the front in bigger contests of political visions in recent years should keep their powder dry.